Composing Great Underwater Photograhs

By Marty Snyderman

I find myself thinking so much about f/stops, lighting techniques and focus, etc., that I feel like my pictures lack soul. What I want to know is, what can I do to make my photographs more interesting?
–Gordon G., Baltimore, MD

Identifying what makes a powerful photograph is not an exact science. As this month’s question suggests, technical perfection alone is not enough to guarantee a favorable reaction from an audience.

When it comes to compelling composition, there are no absolutes. But in the absence of hard and fast rules, here are some guidelines that will increase the appeal of your images. Check out other diver's photo at to get ideas for great photo subjects.

Your photograph should make a statement. The statement can be as simple as, “Wow, this a great looking fish!” Or it can be as complex as, “Isn’t it tragic that sharks like this are being overfished? We absolutely must stop overfishing.” Whatever the statement is, you need to get that message across to your audience. Accomplishing this goal is the essence of compelling composition. In your viewfinder, you should see and feel what you want your audience to experience.

Fill a pleasing percentage of your frame with your subject. An image of a common sea star can be very compelling if it fills a large percentage of your frame in a pleasing manner. Conversely, a shot of a once-in-a-lifetime subject, such as a Whale Shark as pictured in a photo contest entry at, will prove disappointing to everyone but your mother if it is so small in your frame that it looks like a minnow.

Keep images simple. Make it easy for your audience to identify the subject. Images that are too busy confuse and frustrate viewers.
Look for, or create, contrast between your subject and background. Too often subjects get lost, or blend into backgrounds. Try to frame your subjects against open water backgrounds instead of dark reef when you can; and use a strobe to illuminate foreground subjects.
The brightest and most colorful areas in your frame should be the places you want audiences to look. If they are not, then these areas will compete with your subject for viewer attention.

I can’t say enough about faces and eyes. Photograph animals that are facing your camera. As humans, we are biologically programmed to make eye contact with other people and animals. Show faces and eyes, and remember that they must be in razor sharp focus.

When appropriate, apply the rule-of-thirds. Instead of placing your subject dead center in your frame, try mentally laying a tic-tac-toe board over your frame. Place the main areas of interest at the intersecting lines of the tic-tac-toe board and you are likely to have a winner.

Check the edges of your frame for potential problems before tripping the shutter. Potentially great and impactful photographs are often diminished because the photographer never sees an object like an unwanted fin or part of a seafan protruding into the frame.

Provide your subjects with a little head room. Composing images in which the head of a moving subject, such as a fish or diver, is placed immediately against the edge of your frame, creates the claustrophobic feeling of a door being slammed in your subject’s face.

Avoid the too posed look when photographing people. Photograph divers in natural poses, observing, interacting with or photographing marine life.

Considering all of this, don’t be afraid to go against the proverbial book. If the composition looks interesting to you, take the shot. Underwater photography ultimately is about your statement, not how well you apply someone else’s rules.